Oh how pride goeth before the fall.
Sometimes when you think you have this whole writer gig figured out, life steps in to give you a hard slap across the cheek.
A few weeks ago, I ran across a review that was so negative it might have stopped my nascent writing career in its tracks if I had seen it when it was first published, back in 2015. I patted myself on the back for being so much more evolved these days, both in writing skill and in my reaction to my sometimes bad reviews.
I’d even half-convinced myself that I was past the whole negative review phase of my writing career. That from here on out, it would be sunshine and puppies and smooth sailing on the reviews front.
Then I found a new review on a professional site for one of my latest books, and it was devastating. Too choppy, poor world building, sketchy characters.
Bad worldbuilding? That’s my jam!
I’m not going to try to shame the reviewer here. Most reviewers do what they do for the love of reading and for little or no money, and I can’t fault them for expressing their honest opinions about my work, even when it hurts.
Instead, I want to talk about my relationship to reviews, and how that has evolved over time.
As a newbie author, most of us are told the same thing. Don’t read your reviews on reader sites. Several of them are known haunts for review trolls – people who post negative reviews with the sole aims of hurting the author and/or provoking a reaction/
But it’s not quite so simple as “never read your reviews.” If you’re lucky, your book will get picked up by professional reviewers – folks whose job it is to give their opinions about the books they read. These are (generally) marked by a higher standard of critique than reader reviews, and can be influential in helping to sell your book. If a reviewer loves it, some of their readers may become your readers.
As an author I find it necessary to read these professional reviews of my work, as a) they may be raves, and useful in marketing my release, and b) they do come from people whose opinions I generally respect. And yeah, you’re gonna see the word “generally” a lot in this column.
Every author gets bad reviews. Every author gets rejections – including J.K. Rowling, possibly the richest author on the planet, who famously had her first Harry Potter book rejected a number of times before it found a home.
But reviews are different. Unlike publisher rejections, negative revies generally go into excruciating detail about what the reviewer did not like about your book.
It’s as if someone took your baby and said “He’s too short. His hair isn’t blond enough, his teeth are crooked, and I don’t like the way he looks at me when I pick him up. Oh, and what’s that awful smell?”
It feels personal.
But here’s the thing. Generally it’s not. Usually the reviewer has a stack of books, and they are hoping with all their heart that the next book they pick up with make their soul sing, their imagination fly, and their thoughts return to your story again and again for weeks after they complete the review.
Then they read your book, and for whatever reason it doesn’t click with them. And it’s their job to explain why.
So how do we react when we get one of these takedowns of our work?
We cry. Of course we do. Someone has just punched our baby, and it hurts.
We share it with a close friend or two, and commiserate about what a dark and awful world we live in, where no one appreciates our raw talent and sterling storytelling ability (this despite the fact that we got five glowing reviews of our work the day before the bad one).
Then we move on.
I never respond directly to a bad review. I have too much respect for the folks doing the reviewing, and even if I didn’t, if I had reason to suspect that a reviewer was out to get me, no good would ever come of it. We live in a small, beautiful publishing ecosystem, and the author that starts attacking reviewers willy-nilly is not long for the reviewing world.
But there is one more thing we should do, one that I think is vital to becoming a better writer. I’ve long said that once you decide you know all there is to know about writing, your own work stagnates and ceases to grow.
Bad reviews are like a fire that burns through an old forest, causing wreck and ruin but also creating rich soil and letting in the light so new things can grow.
Sit with your negative review for a while. Let it roll around in your subconscious, and you may start to understand (if not actually agree with) some of the things your reviewer said.
In my case, i think the “choppy” reference refers to the fact that I like jumping between many characters to tell an epic story, and in the future, I might try to go for longer stretches between jumps, or cut the number down slightly to give the story a better flow.
Taking the time to absorb what the reviewer said instead of rejecting it outright may push you down the path of personal writing growth.
In my earlier reviews, reviewers generally cited two main deficiencies in my writing – a lack of good character building and growth, and that my works were too short.
So I learned how to write better characters. And I took the second as a compliment – they want more! – and started writing novels instead of novellas, giving my ideas more room to roam.
And guess what? My reviews improved.
So next time you get a negative review, get a pint of Ben and Jerry’s and have a good cry with a friend or two. And then start plotting your revenge.
Start writing better.
To my writer friends – how do you deal with negative professional reviews for your work?